Photo of Richland council Feb. 21 governance workshop by Molly Petersen

When Molly Petersen arrived at city hall on Tuesday night to attend an unbroadcast, public Richland City Council workshop on “Effective Governance, Team Building,” she found the doors to the building were locked. Through the glass she was able to get the attention of one city staff member in the hallway, Petersen told the Observer in a telephone interview.

“Can I help you?” he said, through the closed door. She explained that she was there for the city council workshop. He didn’t open the door but apparently reported the situation to someone who did.

A few moments later, Assistant City Manager Drew Florence arrived and unlocked the door.

According to Petersen, a former Tri-City Herald photojournalist, “Florence apologized profusely.”

“Staff thought they had extended the time to keep the doors unlocked, but it did not function as anticipated,” City Manager Jon Amundson explained in an email to the Observer. The workshop followed the regular city council meeting that ended at about 8:15 pm.

A consultant, Craig Rapp of Craig Rapp Consulting, was inside the city council room leading a workshop on governance training for city councilmembers and key staff. Amundson provided the Observer with the slides that Rapp used in his presentation.

One topic of the workshop, ethics, hasn’t been popular with the council which has avoided any discussion of it despite concerns raised by staff and residents.

One slide presented by Rapp included the question, “How does your organization promote and ensure ethical behavior in everything it does?”

The Observer reached out to each city councilmember to ask how they answered that question.

Councilmember Theresa Richardson was the only one who replied to Observer’s question. She wrote, “We all support promoting and ensuring ethical behavior.”

Rapp’s slides also included responses from councilmembers and staff to a “Effective Governance-Teambuilding Questionnaire.” The comments were mostly positive, but to the question, “Does the City Council and senior management team function together as a team,” one commenter noted:

“Overall, it feels like senior management and council have a good working relationship, however, some councilmembers still seem to default to any crazy idea at the local coffee shop as being correct until proven otherwise by staff, which can send staff on a lot of work to demonstrate otherwise rather than focusing on achieving council’s vision for the community…. It definitely feels like crazy ideas from the community can carry more weight than council’s professional staff, and does not feel like we’ve achieved ‘team’ status in many cases.”

To another question, “Do the City Council and senior management team function together as a team,” one person responded:

“At times, but there are so many new members and a young CM [city manager] that it’s too soon to expect them all to function together as a team. There was recently also a fair amount of ‘politicking’ that perhaps isn’t happening as much anymore, and that ‘politicking’ was often getting in the way of making the right decisions for the right reasons. I’m hopeful about the future.”

At least one former employee of the Richland planning office, plans examiner Ty Jennings, has mentioned the “politicking” problem. In his June 2022, resignation letter he wrote, “We have let integrity fall victim to politics, permitting those with political power to influence how we react.”

Four of the seven city councilmembers have served for less than 18 months. One was just appointed in January to fill a vacancy. The city manager, who had been assistant city manager since 2008, was appointed as interim city manager in January 2021 before being hired permanently for the job later that year.

The Observer emailed City Attorney Heather Kintzley to ask why the workshop wasn’t broadcast. 

“The special workshop is not being broadcast,” Kintzley replied. “I was supposed to advise Communications & Marketing of that decision last week and it slipped my mind. My fault that it was advertised as one that would be broadcast when that was never the intent.”

Records show that it was the first unbroadcast and unrecorded city council workshop since September 2020. However, the state Open Public Meeting Act does not require that meetings be broadcast and recorded. It requires that meetings be open to the public and minutes be taken and made available to residents.

The Observer asked each city councilmember if the city intended to stop broadcasting the workshops. Only Mayor Terry Christensen responded, and he said “No.”

As for the locked door, Amundson wrote in an email to the Observer that the doors were programmed to lock three hours after they were unlocked for city council meetings that begin at 6 pm. He said that Petersen attempted to open the door at 8:56 pm and the door was unlocked for her at 9:03 pm.”

The next city council workshop is scheduled for Feb. 28 at 6 pm at city hall. An email sent today indicated that it would be broadcast on Richland City View.